Raising awareness about stress instead of controlling it

In March 2011, in response to one of the several Stress Awareness Days, HRLeader magazine ran an edited version of a Personnel Today article called “5 steps to tackle employee stress”.  The Personnel Today had “6 steps”, so are Australian readers being ripped off?

Personnel Today included a step called “Refer the Health and Safety Executive’s management standards”.  HRLeader’s editor must have made the call that HSE information is geographically specific and therefore not relevant to Australia but the change is more indicative of the fact that Australia does not have anything to match the HSE management standards to help control stress.  According to the HSE website:

“….the six Management Standards cover the primary sources of stress at work. These are:

  • Demands[1] – this includes issues such as workload, work patterns and the work environment.
  • Control[2] – how much say the person has in the way they do their work.
  • Support[3] – this includes the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues.
  • Relationships[4] – this includes promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour.
  • Role[5] – whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting roles.
  • Change[6] – how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation”

The 5 steps in HRLeader are:

  • Line managers are vital
  • Communication is essential
  • Know your people
  • Treat all employees well
  • Maintain contact with absent employees

One can see from the HR Leader list that the actions most likely to lead to lasting change on the issues of stress in the workplace are absent.  If one wants to apply the hierarchy of controls, the HR Leader list rests in Administrative Controls.  The HSE Management Standards looks at the higher controls of the hierarchy which, when dealing with the issue of stress, must focus on Elimination.

HSE looks at the organisational causes of stress – “workloads, work patterns and the work environment”.  No serious stress management strategy can omit these issues; to do so would be to give a stressed worker an office plant to sooth them, when five minutes later they are being yelled at or being allocated inappropriate and unsafe deadlines.

It is a shame, in the true sense of the word, that Australian OHS regulators have not created a local companion to the HSE Management Standards or, at the very least, imported them and rebadged them (with HSE support, of course).

In the second half of 2011, Safe Work Australia is likely to release two draft Codes of Practice related to psychosocial hazards – Fatigue and Bullying. (Significantly workplace stress is absent even though one Australian guidance on stress, StressWise, is a very popular document)  The mental health issues that these two workplace hazards, in themselves, create are enormous both in social and economic impact but the draft codes will not succeed in achieving any lasting change without a supportive national mechanism such as the HSE Management Standards.

Australian workers deserve a safety management revolution and instead are receiving a sit-in protest on the village green.  HR and safety professionals are not doing themselves any favours by accepting the draft codes and thin public comment processes on a process of legal tweaks.  Australia had a chance for some visionary change, particularly on psychosocial hazards, but has missed the boat.

Kevin Jones

More information on the HSE management standards is available HERE and HERE, with downloadable tools HERE.

reservoir, victoria, australia

2 thoughts on “Raising awareness about stress instead of controlling it”

  1. The word “Stress” actually relates to wear and tear as when the rubber meets the road on a tire or the brake pads pressing up against the rotor in the wheel. The term as it applies to living organisms was first introduced by Hans Seyle in the 1930’s who defined it as the consequence of the failure of an organism (human or animal) to respond appropriately to emotional or physical threats, whether actual or imagined. Thus stress symptoms are the manifestation of a chronic state of responses to stress triggers that are actually benign. Even a thought can set off the same response mechanism that would be in play while standing in front of a hungry lion. Hence, Seyle’s definition still reaches to the heart of stress management; the idea of the response being inappropriate and engaging in a process of altering ones misperception of pending disaster or imminent danger.

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